Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mont Saint Michel

Just when you think you’ve seen all the coolest things in the world, you get to Mont Saint Michel. Archangel Micheal was a busy guy back in the middle ages. He convinced Joan of Arc to do battle with the English and he also spoke to the bishop of Avranches some five centuries earlier to whisper he should build an abbey on a rock. Sure enough, the King agreed this was a great idea and the building began.

The challenging thing about this whole project was that the rock was surrounded by water…but only at high tide. This made coming and going with supplies more interesting but the clever Norman/Britan/French (long story) people used a millennia old technique of floating the heavy stones out on barges as the water rose. This was first tried by the Egyptians back during the pyramid days and look how well THAT worked out. Once the stones were out there they had to haul them up the rock face to the top. The Egyptians used ramps angled up the sides of the pyramids but these people used the hamster wheel for a more direct pull. Six men would stand shoulder to shoulder with six other men in a large wheel. The wheel had cable wound around it attached to the two ton stone at the bottom of the rock. I assume the men would trudge rather than trot in the wheel as the stone was rather heavy but I could be wrong. They also used a sled thing with rollers on it to assist the stone’s movement up the side. This too was borrowed from the ancient Egyptians. They used this same technique to roll the heavy stone sarcophagi into the tombs.

To get to the top today, you run the tourist gauntlet of souvenir stores as you wind your way up through the village to the stairs leading into the imposing abbey fortress. One of the shops still sells omelettes, the way it did four hundred years ago. They have a whole tourist show going on now and many, many t-shirts, hats, bags and so on to help you remember them by but their omelettes are in the neighbourhood of $30 so only the very wealthy eat eggs at Mont Saint Michel.

The views from the abbey are understandably fabulous. We could see where the new dam has gone in. The bishop of Avranches had a good thing back in the 9th century and it just kept getting gooder over the centuries. Pilgrims from all over came to wade through the rising tidal waters to get to the abbey. By the 1800’s business was good enough that they put in a causeway to avoid ruining a perfectly good pair of shoes. This had the desired effect and today 3.5 million visitors a year flood the place. However, with the causeway there, the ocean could no longer surround the island and slowly, ever so slowly, the silt from each successive tide built up around the causeway until the abbey now sits at the end of a swampy peninsula.

Well, tourism has been good so they now have a plan to remove the silt build-up by tunneling under the causeway and creating a way for the water to wash around the island once more. The first phase was to build a dam. The dam plugs up the natural river that flows out near Mont Saint Michel. The dam is shut during high tide allowing the river to build up pressure. As the tide recedes, the dam is opened creating a flushing effect to help wash away the silt. Once most of the silt is gone they’ll be able to do the tunnel under the causeway and voila, they have an island again. Clever, eh?


maryanncart said...

I'm really wondering how much of an effect this will all have on Rhys and Julia and their future studies! Ann Stevenson was there when she was in 8th grade...Ian remembers eating at one of the cafes in your pictures and he was there in the late '50's...Love Mom